Theater

In “The Baroness,” Karen Blixen’s Late-in-Life Affair Receives a Stormy Treatment

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Karen Blixen, who published her books Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales under the pen name Isak Dinesen, was an extremely intense woman with a flair for dramatic gestures. Unsurprisingly, then, she makes for a dynamic central character in Danish playwright Thor Bjørn Krebs’s The Baroness, about the older Blixen in Denmark and her enchantment of a younger poet named Thorkild Bjørnvig. As embodied by Dee Pelletier, Blixen is a woman who lives at the highest pitch of emotion at all times. When she first meets Bjørnvig (Conrad Ardelius), she stalks around him like a hunter circling prey, and there are even times when she seems like a witch casting a spell (she refers to herself as a witch quite often).

Blixen manages to win Bjørnvig away from his wife and family and sets him up at her estate at Rungstedlund, where she swears him to a pact of eternal friendship. Blixen was in her early sixties when she met Bjørnvig, who was almost thirty. The situation between them might at first seem akin to the one in Sunset Boulevard, in which the silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) gets a young, penniless writer (William Holden) in her clutches. But the repartee between Blixen and Bjørnvig is stranger than that, and more difficult to grasp.

Blixen was an anorexic who believed herself to still be suffering from syphilis, which she acquired from her husband, Baron Blixen, on their farm in Africa. Her conception of love was beyond the sexual, which is why Pelletier very smartly steers clear of any behavior that might be perceived as flirtatious, even when she is approximating Blixen’s urge to paint Bjørnvig in the nude when he shyly brags about the firmness of his body. Both Pelletier and Ardelius are ideally cast in their roles: She is as eccentric and elemental as this woman needs to be, and he is as sweet and slightly dim as Bjørnvig must be to put up with Blixen’s rages and violent exhortations.

But there is an imbalance here in the writing. The first act lasts for an hour and a half, and so all the scenes where Blixen is yelling at or manipulating Bjørnvig get tiring. It seems clear why Bjørnvig is staying at Rungstedlund and putting up with her, but it is less clear what an audience is supposed to get out of it. As good as Pelletier is, she needs to find moments — particularly toward the end — where we can see Blixen’s vulnerability.

The third character, Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson), who is the wife of Bjørnvig’s publisher, comes in and out of the play at bewildering intervals and isn’t integrated into the main situation until she needs to be there for plot purposes. Yet this look at Blixen’s last great platonic love affair is studded with some of the best observations from her stories and interviews, and these lines, as delivered by Pelletier, have a romantic force that lingers.

The Baroness — Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair
Clurman Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
212-239-6200
spincyclenyc.com
Through September 24

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